A bitter dispute has developed over the record $15.1 million federal civil-rights verdict awarded to the family of an unarmed black man killed in 2013 by a police sniper. The city of Lakewood claims the case’s “racially charged themes” prejudiced the jury against police.
A bitter dispute over claims that a record $15.1 million jury verdict, against the Lakewood Police Department, its chief and two officers for the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man, was the result of prejudicial “racially charged trial themes” has led a federal judge to refer the case to mediation.
Lakewood’s attorneys contend the verdict was “excessive” and that punitive damages levied against Chief Mike Zaro ($3 million), Sgt. Brian Markert ($2 million) and Officer Mike Wiley ($1.5 million) are not covered by insurance and beyond what they could ever pay.
“In the case of Chief Zaro, $3 million in punitive damages … is not mere punishment, it is the financial equivalent of a death sentence,” wrote attorney Brian Augenthaler.
He asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein to reduce the total verdict — which included $8.6 million in compensatory damages — by more than 80 percent, or grant a new trial.
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Rothstein responded by sending the case to a mediator in hopes the two sides could negotiate an agreement before ruling.
Augenthaler said the city would be willing to pay the family and estate of Leonard Thomas a total of $2.4 million — including $720,046 in punitive damages divided among the three officers.
A unanimous seven-member jury in U.S. District Court handed down the $15.1 million verdict — likely the largest civil-rights verdict ever in the Western District of Washington — in July after a three-week trial over the death of Thomas, who was shot in 2013 after a misdemeanor domestic-violence assault escalated into a four-hour SWAT standoff at his Fife home, where he had retreated with his 4-year-old son.
Two armored vehicles and 29 heavily armed officers from the multi-jurisdiction Pierce County Metro SWAT team responded to the incident. Zaro was incident commander, Wiley led an assault team and Markert was a sniper armed with a high-powered rifle.
According to testimony, Thomas — who was drunk and off medications for bipolar disorder — had agreed to let the child go home with the child’s grandmother. Zaro had…